In the early 19th century, one of the compelling stories in the United States was — as it had already been for two centuries — westward migration. Immigrants from Europe arrived on the eastern shore of the continent. Some of them settled in the fast-growing cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston. Others pushed westward, looking for … well, they were looking for a lot of things, not all of which were possible.
Those migrants took several paths across the continent, heading west by northwest from St. Louis along the Oregon Trail, or west by southwest along a track that became known as the Santa Fe Trail, bound for a town that had been a center of civilization for more than a thousand years, although the original inhabitants had been displaced by Spanish settlers a couple of hundred years earlier. The Santa Fe Trail skirted the Sangre de Christo range of the Rocky Mountains, until it reached a westward pass around the mountains in a vast prairie of grassy meadows, “vegas,” in Spanish. Where the trail crossed the Gallinas River, a town grew up, named after the meadows: Las Vegas. It became a nexus of settlement and commerce. Las Vegas was the archetypal wild and woolly western town, swarming with prospectors, speculators, entrepreneurs, gamblers, seekers and the restless. In the 1870s, engineers for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad laid out a route that followed the Santa Fe Trail, to exchange the produce and livestock from the area with goods from the east. Las Vegas boomed. Boomed, I say. In short order, the town blossomed, becoming one of the largest towns in the American southwest. As Las Vegas prospered, it featured a town plaza, lavish hotels, opera houses, civic buildings and department stores.
The Harvey chain constructed an immense Mission-style hotel next to the railroad depot to cater to the travelers passing along the line.
A town that now has only about 14,000 residents, Las Vegas, New Mexico has more than 900 structures designated as federal or state historical landmarks. As the 20th century dawned, to crown their rise to greatness, the civic leaders applied to be one of the westernmost hosts of that symbol of civilization and culture: a Carnegie Library. To attest to their dedication, they set aside an entire city block of green space to house their new treasure, and Mr. Carnegie’s assistant, James Bertram, judged that they met the requirements for a Carnegie endowment:
- demonstrate the need for a public library;
- provide the building site;
- annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and,
- provide free services to all.
In keeping with the Carnegie philosophy, the design was left to the discretion of the local organizers. Across the world (not only the United States), local tastes and styles would prevail. In 1904, Las Vegas opened its Carnegie Library, modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Today, Las Vegas, New Mexico is a palimpsest of its former glory. The great days of rail travel are long past. The Harvey chain’s La Castaneda Hotel sits — derelict now for seventy years — within a few hundred yards of Interstate 25, which funnels high speed traffic streaming north to Colorado Springs and Denver and south to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and El Paso. Hundreds of once-glamorous houses and hotels and civic buildings crumble slowly under the sun. Despite being the county seat, the town boasts few restaurants worth visiting, although it does have a respectable institution of higher learning, New Mexico Highlands University.
But: The Las Vegas Carnegie Library still occupies its square of green lawn in Carnegie Park. More than a century after its founding, it continues to be a functioning library. Here’s a photo taken inside in July 2013:
If Andrew Carnegie walked into that library today, he would have the experience to which he attributed his success, and to which he dedicated a significant part of his immense fortune to fostering: He could walk to a shelf, take down a book and read, free of charge, at his will, which was one of the qualifications he required for a Carnegie library: free access. In his youth, he campaigned for access to the privately financed library in Pittsburgh and credited that facility of learning as the core instrument of his rise from telegraph messenger boy to world dominance in the manufacturing of steel. He believed, with — I’m convinced — utter sincerity, that a similar will coupled with the right opportunity could lift anyone to greatness. So, among his many philanthropies, he focused on establishing libraries. More than a thousand of the 2,500 Carnegie libraries still stand. Nearly a thousand in the United States are still operating libraries. The people of Las Vegas may get their information from those shelves of books, or they might sit down at one of the computer terminals the library offers. As this writer once did in the Carnegie library of his Ohio home town, younger readers can descend the stairs to the children’s section.
The Las Vegas library is now the only operating Carnegie Library of three established in New Mexico. The library in Raton fell to the wrecking ball in 1969, and the one in Roswell stands vacant and is currently for sale.
I’ve celebrated Andrew Carnegie’s sponsorship of libraries before in this blog. I don’t want to overstate the case. Tens of thousands of towns and cities established libraries without Mr. Carnegie’s assistance. Their citizens and civic leaders are all to be commended. Aside from fostering a strong school system and keeping religion out of government, there may be no more important civic action that one could take to promote a future filled with hope than to establish and maintain a free public library. Carnegie’s libraries are an impressive achievement.
Mistake me not!
Andrew Carnegie was no saint. He was one of the most brutal and rapacious business tycoons who ever drew breath. He built a fortune of Croesean proportions on the backs of countless laborers whose wages he kept as low as possible by conspiring with his own competitors. He looked the other way and feigned ignorance when his managers at Homestead and other Carnegie steel works let the Pinkertons first instigate violence then visit death on unarmed workers, after which Carnegie’s minions evicted the widowed families of the “guilty” from company housing. Late in his career he delivered one of the most mind-bendingly disingenuous testimonies ever given to the U.S. Congress, disavowing responsibility for or knowledge of the vast market manipulation in which his enterprise engaged for decades.
How, then, does one reconcile Carnegie’s utter, monumental disregard for the rule of law and justice with his almost maniacal dedication to give away his vast (and it WAS staggeringly immense) fortune for the benefit of others? Two souls seem to have inhabited his mind and body: the grimly determined businessman who would stop at nothing to succeed, and the once impoverished boy who attributed much of his success to the access he gained to a library, and was determined to extend that opportunity to all?
Today, tomorrow and for days to come, in Las Vegas, New Mexico and in cities and towns in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, and Fiji, a child can walk into a Carnegie library and find a book to read or, better yet, encounter a librarian who will help them find some information they’re looking for. Inconceivable to Andrew Carnegie, they may sit down at a computer terminal and access the World Wide Web or a specialized database of information that will help them with a school project or answer a question they have about dinosaurs or space travel or history. Andrew Carnegie’s money established that library.
I can’t make sense of it.
Do the deaths, shattered lives and violated laws justify Carnegie’s philanthropy? He left grants so vast that they still operate today, not only as public libraries, but as Carnegie Mellon University, the Carnegie Institution for Science and, of course, the ultimate venue for musicians everywhere, Carnegie Hall, to mention only a few of his enduring philanthropies.
I don’t know the answer to this riddle. I do know that in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where approximately a quarter of the population live below the “poverty line,” a child can cross the green sward of Carnegie Park to read a book, or a person who otherwise lacks access to the Internet can go there to get online, and that’s some consolation. If you can support your local library, you can make a difference, too.
© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017
Some facts about Carnegie Libraries courtesy of Wikipedia.org. Much of what I know about Mr. Carnegie’s life I gleaned from David Nasaw’s excellent biography, Andrew Carnegie. The editorial opinions expressed here reflect my views, not Mr. Nasaw’s.